A recent motion passed by New Westminster council to remove the statue of a controversial colonial-era judge has raised hopes for a memorial to honour the first South Asian political activist to be hanged in Canada.
Bhai Mewa Singh was executed on January 11, 1915, in New Westminster for the assassination of an infamous immigration inspector, William Charles Hopkinson.
First, some background.
Singh was one of many South Asians who started arriving in British Columbia in the late 1800s and early 1900s to earn a better livelihood.
This was a time when India was a British colony and B.C. was a province in the Dominion of Canada, which took direction from the British government.
The British occupation of India made ordinary people's lives miserable in that part of the world.
Since the British Empire claimed back then that it treated its subjects fairly, many Punjabi Sikh immigrants began arriving in B.C. in search of greener pastures.
However upon their arrival here, they faced racial hostilities. They were not allowed to bring their families and in 1907, they were disenfranchised.
All this was done to discourage them from becoming permanent settlers because the government wanted to keep Canada as a white man’s country.
South Asian community elders realized that they were being treated with contempt only because their home country wasn’t free.
Thus began struggles against colonialism back home and racism abroad.
Under these circumstances, South Asian political activists started getting organized. Since a majority of them were Sikhs, they built a gurdwara under the aegis of Khalsa Diwan Society.
This temple not only provided a religious space, but also became a centre of political activism.
Singh, who was a devout Sikh, was among those who collected donations for the first gurdwara in Vancouver. He later became involved in political actions.
The turning point came in 1914 when a ship called the Komagata Maru was forcibly returned by the Canadian government under a discriminatory immigration law.
The Japanese ship with more than 350 South Asian passengers onboard was required to leave Burrard Inlet under the shadow of guns on July 23, 1914. This came after it remained stranded in the Vancouver harbour for two months.
This incident galvanized the South Asian freedom movement in B.C.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already made an official apology for the Komagata Maru episode in the House of Commons.
The detention of the ship in 1914 started a bloody fight within the South Asian community, which was divided into two camps.
One was led by the radical activists and the other patronized by Hopkinson. The latter camp included a group of spies who often intimidated those who were politically active in the South Asian community.
Through this network of moles in the community, Hopkinson was gathering secret information about the radicals and sending it to the British government in India.
He had previously served in India and was sent to Vancouver for that specific purpose because he could speak Hindi.
In September, 1914, one of Hopkinson’s agents, Bela Singh, went into the gurdwara and shot and killed two political activists, Bhag Singh and Badan Singh. This act of sacrilege and blatant racism turned Mewa Singh into an assassin.
He fatally shot Hopkinson at the Vancouver courthouse where the latter had gone to testify for Bela Singh, who was being tried in front of a jury.
Mewa Singh did not escape from the scene and in fact, courted arrest. He also decided against pleading not guilty in court and took sole responsibility for the murder.
"We Sikhs go in gurdwaras to offer prayer, but these wicked ones opened fire in the gurdwara, killed Bhai Bhag Singh, and thus desecreted the sanctity of the gurdwara. These sinners have orphaned two innocent children...I know that I have shot at Hopkinson and I have to die for this. I am giving this statement for this purpose that the public may know what suffering we have been going through," Mewa Singh said.
His statement indicates that he was willing to face death with courage and had no regret for his action, which resulted from racism and mistreatment of South Asian immigrants in Vancouver.
He chanted prayers as he was being taken to the gallows on the morning of January 11, 1915.
Undoubtedly, the murder of Hopkinson was the culmination of British colonialism and systemic racism in that period.
If Canada really cares for reconciliation, then it must accept this reality and absolve Singh of criminal charges, while the City of New Westminster should immediately start the process of identifying the actual spot where he was executed and build a fitting memorial to honour him.
After all, council has already voted to remove the statue of the so-called hanging judge, Matthew Begbie, who had ordered the execution of six Tsilhqot’in Chiefs in 1864.
The council vote came after the decision of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to exonerate those indigenous chiefs who were given capital punishment for fighting against British occupation of their traditional lands.
It would be a similar and long-awaited move to right another historical wrong: the hanging of Mewa Singh.
Tsilhqot’in chiefs were hanged for the murders of 14 white road-construction workers during the Chilcotin War of 1864.
This conflict was precipitated by settlers who came to the region for gold and gave no consideration to the rights of the Chilcotin people.
During this time, not only did the settlers try to build a road into their traditional territory without consent, they also raped Indigenous women.
Following the murders, five Indigenous chiefs were tricked into peace talks, and then were arrested and hanged. The sixth chief was executed much later.
Canada has since acknowledged that these chiefs acted as leaders of a proud and independent nation facing the threat of another nation.
In light of these developments, Canada should also think of absolving Singh and recognize that what he did wasn’t a crime motivated by any personal motive or greed.
Rather, it too was a response to colonialism and imperialism.